The Challenge for Beijing’s New Leaders: Chinese No Longer Bow to Autocratic Rule

November 4th, 2012

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Bernhard Zand in Beijing, Nov. 2, 2012 (Photo-Gallery).

The time of autocratic rule has passed for China’s Communist Party. At one time it was understood that the people would obey, and everyone would get rich in return. But economic success will no longer suffice. Now the Chinese are demanding freedom and security too.

There wasn’t a word to be found in China last week about the story that had splashed across headlines for several days everywhere else in the world. Not a single mention was afforded the $2.7 billion (€2 billion) that the New York Times reported has been amassed by the family of outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao during his time in office … //

… Chinese People Demand More:

But the course of history is unlikely to take such a direct route. The tasks ahead of the new leadership are different than those that Wen and Hu faced. China’s economic growth, though still impressive at 7 percent, is slowly plateauing, while the demands of the Chinese have increased with prosperity. But above all, the once clear-cut balance of power between the leadership and the people has changed. For decades it was the people who feared the government, but now it is increasingly the case that the government fears the people.

Last week, thousands protested construction on a petrochemical plant with suspect filtering facilities for four days in Ningbo, one of China’s richest cities. It was just one of countless “mass incidents” that have taken place in recent years. But the local government did something that would not have happened 10 years ago – they stopped construction and promised to reconsider the factory. The time of unfettered autocratic rule – which inspired wonder among foreign investors and was silently envied by Western politicians – is over. Ecologically questionable projects, in particular, have become more difficult today than in some democratic countries, Western businesses are now beginning to admit.

Policy of Prosperity: … //

… Suffering From a Lack of Rights:

But in the next 10 years, China can no longer be ruled according to the primacy of economic growth that strangles all resistance. “Many Chinese have become rich in recent years,” explains economist Hu Xingdou. “But those that are still poor suffer mainly from a lack of rights.” While the fourth generation was preoccupied with ensuring stability, he points out, the fifth generation needs to address social justice, including the rights of farmers and unions, the freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, and the establishing of the rule of law.

Powered by exports and the extension of the national infrastructure, China’s growth might be impressive, says Hu, but what matters now is individual consumer clout. This can only be boosted by supporting individuals rather than once again raising state quotas and printing yet more money.

“Even problems that appear to have purely economic roots can in reality only be solved by political means,” says writer Zhang Yihe, whose father – like China’s designated new leader Xi – was one of the founders of the People’s Republic of China. This also applies to the ever-widening prosperity gap as well as rural expropriation conflicts and the corruption that reaches from provincial authorities all the way to the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the party’s leading body.

‘What’s the Point of the Wealth We’ve Amassed?’

But economic progress was not just the goal of China’s leadership — it was the goal of the entire world. And as the apprehensive attitude of Europe and the US to Beijing’s growth figures goes to show, it still is. But these days, some in China are now less concerned about further growth and more interested in its political dividends.

Writer Zhang says she’s hoping to see the new leadership make some bold moves. The first would be to relax press censorship, she says, pointing to the example of Burma. It should also beef up the rights of minorities and then take a cue from Taiwan and give elections some careful consideration, she adds. But what she really hopes to see it do is take the unprecedented risk of admitting that the Tiananmen Square massacre was a mistake and compensating victims. “That shouldn’t be hard!” she says. “What’s the point of the wealth we’ve amassed?”

As Bill Clinton liked to say: “It’s the economy, stupid.” It’s a mantra that seems to hold universally true, but not necessarily in China, where perhaps people have started to tire of it.
(full text).

More Photo-Galleries on China:

China’s Rising Power – and related article: Beijing’s Global Ambitions: China Seeks Role as Second Superpower;

China Helps, Threatens Businesses Abroad -  and related article: The Ferrari-Red Communists, China at a Crossroads in Shift from World’s Factory to Industrial Power;

China’s Rich Political Families;

China’s Power Handover;

China after the Bo Xilai Scandal and related article: Murder and Money: China’s Communists May Emerge Stronger from Scandal

other links:

Human Rights in China: related articles;

Murder, Sex and Corruption: The Battle for China’s Most Powerful Office;

You Get What You Pay For: The Hidden Price of Food from China
;

Interview with Ai Weiwei: They Are Weak;

China:

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